It was late afternoon as the train approached Antibes on France’s CÃ´te d’Azur. I was gazing out the window at the sea, captivated by the shimmering light. All around the landscape had an ethereal quality, quite unlike anything I had ever before seen.
I realised this was the renowned light the Impressionists came to capture. “What I will bring back from here is gentleness itself. White, pink, blue all wrapped up in a magical air,” said Claude Monet of Antibes.
Located on a small promontory overlooking the indigo waters of the Mediterranean, Antibes’ picturesque setting and otherworldly light add to its charm. Narrow streets wind past craft workshops, boutiques, quaint squares, and marketplaces. Take yourself on a walking tour, stopping intermittently for refreshments at the many cafÃ©s, restaurants and bars.
A must-see is the ancient MarchÃ© ProvenÃ§al, a covered market offering typical regional produce ranging from a vast array of condiments to olives, fish, fruit, vegetables, breads, cheeses and flowers. Open mornings, a wander through will stimulate your senses and whet your appetite for a day of French gastronomy.
Age-old ramparts run along the shore beneath which people sun themselves on the white, sandy beach, La Gravette. A long, arched protective wall runs along the port. Port Vauban is Europe’s largest yachting marina and, combined with four more nearby ports, provides over 2,000 berths along 25 kilometres of piers.
The world’s finest yachts stop here, and as they are regularly in need of crew, workers come to Antibes to try their luck getting jobs on board, many Aussies amongst them. Usually recruitment companies handle job placements, but there are jobs for the taking by doing a dock walk, resume in hand.
Free mini-buses, Navette Gratuite, run around town and stop at Port Vauban. However, as always, a walking tour is the best way to discover the city outside the fortifications. A highlight is a stroll along the ramparts at sunset to enjoy the view out to the cape. Similarly, looking back to Antibes from the Garoupe lighthouse on Cap d’Antibes will have you scrambling for your camera.
The imposing Fort CarrÃ© takes pride of place at the far end of the promontory, overseeing the billionaires’ comings and goings at Port Vauban beneath. Built in the 16th century it now operates as a museum and offers spectacular views.
Monet was not the only one to be enchanted by the area as Antibes has played host to many artistic greats. Picasso painted Antibes in the 1920s and returned in the 1940s to spend some months painting in the chÃ¢teau that had previously been bought by the city and converted into a museum. Upon his departure, he donated all the work he had done there to the museum, now known as the Picasso Museum in his honour.
The museum exhibits many other modern artists’ works, including some of the abstract artist, Nicolas de Stael, another temporal Antibes resident. He lived in a house on the ramparts and had a prolific final year producing 300 works before ending his own life there in 1955.
Jules Verne spent winters in Antibes in the 1870s working on the theatrical adaptations of his novels. F. Scott Fitzgerald was in residence across the way in Juan-les-Pins during the roaring 1920s, revelling in the heady years of the Jazz Age.
Even NapolÃ©on Bonaparte was in town in the 1790s to assume responsibility for defending the coast. The Napoleonic Museum on Cap d’Antibes is dedicated to showcasing memorabilia from his glory days.
Antibes is a derivation of Antipolis, the ancient Greek name meaning ‘city on the other side.’ On the other side of exactly what no-one has ever reached agreement, but these days Antibes finds itself flanked by some of the ritziest and glitziest places in Europe with Cannes and St Tropez to the west, Monte Carlo and Nice to the east, and swinging Juan-les-Pins at its side.
Being on ‘the other side’ of everywhere while retaining a quaint charm makes Antibes the perfect base from which to explore the region. As Graham Greene, the author of The Quiet American and The End of the Affair, believed: “Antibes… stands alone as the only town on the CÃ´te d’Azur that has kept its… soul.”
Contiguous to Antibes is Juan-les-Pins, where music by day is the waves lapping the two-kilometre long sandy beach and music by night emanates from the many nightclubs and jazz joints. “Jazz Ã Juan,” Europe’s oldest jazz festival, is held in mid-July and attracts international musicians.
Those who have appeared from the old school include Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davies, John Coltrane and Sidney Bechet. Those from the new school include Diana Krall, James Carter, Joshua Redman and Marcus Miller. Whichever school, music lovers delight in the world-class jazz, fusion and blues set in the open-air beneath towering pine trees beside the cobalt waters of the Mediterranean.
For aquaphiles many water sports are on offer in Juan-les-Pins. Diving, sailing, canoeing, catamaraning, windsurfing, parasailing and the city’s favourite, water-skiing. In fact, the first world water-skiing championships were held here in 1949.
Cannes, just a five-minute train ride away, is an appealing town of beaches, boutiques and bonhomie. It comes into its element in mid-May when the Nicoles, Sharons, Brads and Quentins hit town for the film festival.
Unfortunately, the festival is by and large a closed shop so there is little hope of getting a cinema seat beside John Travolta, but he or any other has-made-it or has-been might be at the restaurant table beside you.
By the way, the carpet is colour-coded depending on how brightly one’s star is shining: brilliant A-listers are afforded the red carpet at the Palais des Festivals whereas dimming B-listers and beyond get blue carpet at the auditorium around the corner.
Not unexpectedly, accommodation in Cannes is scarce and expensive at festival time: a perfect reason to base yourself in fair Antibes from where the whole Riviera is your oyster. Don’t forget your paintbrushes.
If You Go
Tourist Office, 11 Place de Gaulle, 06600 Antibes
Telephone: 04 92 90 53 00 Fax: 04 92 90 53 01
By fast train from Marseille and Nice and by direct bus from Nice airport
Picasso Museum, Chateau Grimaldi, 06600 Antibes
Fort Carre, Avenue du 11 Novembre, 06600 Antibes
Napoleonic Museum, Batterie du Graillon, Bd J F Kennedy, 06160 Juan-les-Pins
10 Euro combined ticket, valid 7 consecutive days for entry to Fort CarrÃ©, Picasso Museum, Napoleonic Museum, and the Archaeology and Peynet Museums
June – August: open all mornings
September – May: open Tuesday to Sunday mornings